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    Flounder may get reprieve as part of study

    The catch limit for flounder in Murrells Inlet and Pawleys Island would be cut in half and gigging would be restricted under a bill pending in the state Senate.

    The restrictions would run for five years as part of an effort to study the population of the popular fish in the local estuaries.

    Gigging is done at night, using lights to spot flounder as they lay on the bottom and a three-pronged spear. There is a running debate about the impact of gigging, with critics saying that the current catch limit of 20 flounder allows commercial giggers to fill their boat.

    The town of Pawleys Island considered trying to close boat landings at night to limit gigging, but dropped the idea after hearing from anglers and after county and state officials questioned their authority to close the landings.

    “Folks who use the creek have complained about commercial flounder fishing,” Mayor Bill Otis said. “That has reduced the amount of flounder for recreational fishing.”

    He said he spoke with legislators about the problem last year.

    State Sen. Ray Cleary of Murrells Inlet introduced a bill last month that would require the state Department of Natural Resources to study the effects of catch limits and gigging on the Murrells Inlet and Pawleys estuaries.

    Starting Jan. 1, the catch limit would be 10 flounder a day and giggers could not use lights powered by a generator.

    “When the people doing this high-tech gigging come in, they’re filling the boat to the limit of all the people on board,” Otis said.

    The bill is now in committee.

    The state launched a survey of flounder gigging in 2007. A report is due to be presented in June, said Mel Bell, manager of the Office of Fishery Management.

    “It’s a pretty good component of the flounder fishery,” he said. “It’s been invisible because we haven’t been out there.”

    Natural Resources relies on data from anglers to assess the health of flounder populations. Unlike the state’s other top gamefish, red drum and spotted sea trout, flounder aren’t easily caught in survey nets, Bell said.

    But the “creel surveys” are done during the daytime, so gigging has never been counted, he said.

    A $250,000 federal grant funded a flounder gigging survey along the coast that began in 2007.

    Murrells Inlet and Pawleys Creek were part of the survey, Bell said.

    Staff went out at night to check on catches, and they also flew over the estuaries with night-vision cameras to gauge the extent of gigging.

    “It’s the same technology the Defense Department uses,” Bell said. “At 1,200 feet, the folks never know you’re there.”

    The field work will continue into May. But there are some preliminary results that show the average gigger’s catch is similar to that of anglers who use a rod.

    “The average gigger doesn’t take as many as the average hook and line guy might assume he does,” Bell said. “Some do, but that’s not necessarily the average.”

    That average was two flounder per trip, he said.

    “Very few people come anywhere near the current limits,” Bell said, whatever means they use.

    As for commercial giggers, the survey shows they are part of the fishery.

    “But not to the extent people might think,” Bell said.

    That’s based on surveys of seafood dealers. If giggers are selling outside dealers, that’s already illegal, he said.

    The survey will be presented to the state Marine Advisory Committee in June. Any recommendations for changes in the fishery would be presented to the legislature in January.

    The current legislation proposed in Senate, focused on a smaller area, could provide more information that would help the state manage the flounder fishery, Bell said.

    It calls for a “population study,” which is something that hasn’t been done before, Bell said.

    “We tend to look at trends in the fishery,” he said. “It’s sort of all over the board.”

    What the agency knows is that flounder fishing has increased over the past two decades. At the same time people are catching more, they are releasing less.

    “Red drum is 85 to 90 percent catch and release,” Bell said. “It isn’t the same with flounder.

    People see them and say, ‘that would be good with some hush puppies and cole slaw.’ ”

    South Carolina’s catch limit for flounder is higher than in neighboring states, so the 10-fish limit in Cleary’s bill would be a chance to “test drive” a lower limit, Bell said.

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